In 1996, fate found an agent in an unnamed donkey belonging to the antiquities security patrol of the Temple of Alexander, in the Bahariya Oasis, southwest of Cairo, Egypt. Reports of what happened vary slightly, but the results all end the same—with one of the greatest discoveries of modern Egyptology. Two stories can be found about the donkey and its important accomplishment. In one account, the donkey got loose from its handler and was later found staring at a hole in the ground. The other version claims that the security patrol and the donkey were doing their rounds, when the beast’s leg fell into a hole. Either way, the donkey found a sprawling complex of tombs containing an unknown amount of wall paintings and mummies.
Renowned Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, took over the excavation and study of the site in 1996. The tomb complex is now known as The Valley of the Golden Mummies and contains as many as 10,000 possible mummies. Already, around 250 mummies have been found. More importantly, the tombs, and the mummies and paintings within them, date to the Greco-Roman Period (332 BCE-395 CE), giving valuable insight into how the Greek and Roman cultures interacted with, or were absorbed by, the potent and durable Egyptian culture.
As the name “Valley of the Golden Mummies” suggests, many of the mummies found in the Bahariya Oasis tombs were covered with gold. Interestingly, many non-Egyptian mummies have been found in the tombs. These Greco-Roman elites seemed to have taken a liking to Egyptian burial traditions, for their remains were mummified and laid to rest with golden burial masks. Still, old customs were hard to relinquish—many of the Greco-Roman mummies had coins on their person with which to pay the ferryman of dead souls, Charon, for passage into the underworld.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Egypt’s Ten Greatest Discoveries. Written by Dr. Zahi Hawass and produced by Discovery. Documentary, 2008.